Sunday, November 18, 2007

Fiction: The Island of the Day Before

Translated by William Weaver

1. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995, ISBN 0-15-100151-0; Hardcover $25.00.
2. Harcourt Brace, 1984, ISBN 0-15-600131-4; Paperback $16.00.

Just as the style of Rose reflects the murky density of the late medieval period, and Foucault’s Pendulum reads like a paranoid romp through our fractured postmodern century, the narrative of Eco’s third book blossoms exquisitely outwards along numerous frills and ornamentations, a baroque construction rooted in the seventeenth century.
The Island of the Day Before, published in 1994 as L’isola del giorno prima, is the story of a man named Roberto, a chameleon-like and slightly eccentric Italian who finds himself shipwrecked, of all places, upon another ship. This abandoned vessel, the Daphne, is anchored near an island of stunning beauty; but Roberto is forced by his fear of the sun to avoid the daylight, devoting his time to exploring the strange vessel and penning melodramatic love letters to his “Lady.” During his reveries and periods of writing, he has the time to review his colorful life – his haunted childhood in Italy, his martial experience at the siege of Casale, his education in the decadent salons of Paris – a life to which he dearly wishes to return. But all is not lost; fortunately for Roberto, the ship provides a wealth of opportunities to stave off hunger and boredom, as it’s been thoughtfully equipped with a host of wonders from a room of clocks to an exotic aviary. Unfortunately for Roberto, however, the ship is less abandoned than he had initially thought. But who could this stranger be, this unseen Other who feeds the animals and reads Roberto’s journal while he sleeps? Is it his imaginary brother and evil double Ferrante? Is it another soul in search of the ultimate navigational secret? And just why was this unique craft abandoned anyway? What marvels await on the island?
This, Eco’s third novel, is yet another brilliant accomplishment. At heart, it is a tale of the seventeenth century, a dizzying time when science and reason were divorcing themselves from magic and superstition, when politics and religion were swirling with new currents, and the fires of Revolution and Enlightenment could be barely glimpsed in the distant mirrors of a Paris salon. Filled with a sense of ironic wonder and sly confidence, the story visits one remarkable character after another, allowing each to have their strutting say upon the stage of the narrative. Nature, Theology and Physics are discussed and virtually embodied by a lovable cast of wits and crackpots, lovers and scholars, inventors and inquisitors. All signs and signposts melt into an ambiguous stream of thought; languages are cobbled together as needed by bookish eccentrics, Aristotelian priests talk in Moral & Important Capitals, and the decadent wits destroy God and the State with their rapiers and epigrams, both equally pointed and deadly.
The story is told using a most ingenious framework: Eco (as the anonymous author) poses as the narrator, but he is merely reconstructing the original journal left behind by the quixotic Roberto. Taking this idea several steps farther than in The Name of the Rose, here Eco does not feel bound to faithfully duplicate the original manuscript. Like a modern Cervantes, he freely adapts his found text, offering his own commentary on how “we moderns” must look at certain situations in the novel, and occasionally chiding Roberto or offering amusing posthumous criticism. It is a wonderful idea, and it works extremely well, giving the story an inescapable glow of ironic humor.
Although The Island of the Day Before is more playful and lighthearted than Eco’s previous two novels, it is every bit as dense, serving as a cornucopia of unique images and intriguing ideas. The book is bursting with life, and again Eco makes his writing a platform for the discussion of language and philosophy; and by looking at the marvels and follies of the past with fresh and vigorous eyes, our own ideas and technology are given a new shine as well. Cleverly, Eco presents the science of the mid 1600s with all its “credibility” left intact, and spends many happy pages discussing the ramifications of arcane and esoteric geography, astronomy, physics, and chemistry. At a time when Galileo was only recently dead and Newton just an infant, Eco reaches into the playpen of now-discarded scientific ideas, taking a childlike delight in pulling out long forgotten concepts and investing them with a certain sense of authority, allowing them their place in the sun along with metaphysics and religion – indeed, often welding them indistinguishably together.